Introduction

During the time after Trinity Sunday (eight weeks after Easter) and before Advent (four weeks before Christmas), the lectionary has two series of daily readings, complementary and semi-continuous. There is no right or wrong way to use the readings. Both series use the same New Testament lesson. It is better to read one or the other series consistently than to try to do both and give up because of the time commitment

The complementary readings are linked more closely with the Sunday readings, and the gospel focus is the main basis for the selection of the other Sunday lessons. 

The semi-continuous series are chosen around related biblical themes or stories, so aren’t in biblical order. They are often selected from the same neighbourhood in the Bible, but not always, particularly when dealing with broader topics. 

As we will be adapting the NT readings to encompass our study of Romans, it seems pointless to follow readings that are ‘complementary’ to readings we may have altered for that day. Hence it is more logical to follow the semi-continuous series in these notes on the daily readings.

If you would like to see the alternate complementary readings for each day they can be found via this link:  https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/daily.php?year=A

Monday, June 8, 2020Psalm 29; Job 38:39-39:12; Romans 3:1-8

Psalm 29 presents Yahweh as the one whose great voice speaks through the thunderstorm. There are clear marks that this is a very ancient Psalm, most likely taken over from early Canaanite worship. There are ancient Ugaritic and Egyptian writings with very similar themes. This is possibly the oldest Psalm in the whole of Hebrew poetry. Some of the marks of this ancient lineage are the mention of ‘the heavenly beings’ in vs 1 – a reflection of an original pantheon of gods – over which a ‘god King’ (cf. vs 10b) ruled with his mighty thunderous voice.

In taking over an ancient pagan hymn of praise the Psalmist is very keen to make sure that there is no mistake that the hymn has been pressed into the service of Yahweh, represented in the NRSV by the capitalised form ‘the Lord’. This form, ‘the Lord’, recurs in every line of the hymn for the first 5 verses (with the exception of vs 3b) – ten occurrences in all! A further 8 occurrences in vss 7-11 yield 18 declarations of the divine name in 11 verses.

Lines not to mention the tetragrammaton (the four letter divine name in Hebrew – YHWH) are 3b, where an artful theological point is made – God is not ‘the God of thunder’ (as elsewhere across the ancient near East) but ‘the god of glory’ – who thunders!)  Vs 6 describes how ‘he’ makes Lebanon and Sirion ‘skip’ like young animals and vs 9b, c describe the impact of the voice of ‘the Lord’ mentioned in vs 9a.

Vs 9c introduces a marked change – so sudden that many scholars think something may have slipped from the text here. To this point the psalm has described the mighty God who is heard in thunder and whose voice flashes forth flames of fire (literally ‘splits’ the flames of fire –lightning,  vs 7) and outlined the impact of the thunderstorm on forests, deserts, oceans, trees and animals (see the alternate reading of vs 9a in the notes to the internet version of this verse). Vs 9c takes us away from nature and the wider region into the heart of the temple in Jerusalem: and in his temple all say “Glory!” The cosmic power of the natural realm is here grounded in the temple, and while the Lord sits enthroned over the flood (reference to the waters of the heavens – vs 10a) and the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever (reference to a pantheon of ‘the gods’ over which Yahweh rules – vs 10b), all this power and might is invoked as God’s strength and peace to be shared with God’s people (vs 11a, 11b).

In an age when science has demythologised thunder and lightning and largely taken away their terror, this Psalm may lose some of its power. That is a tragedy! The repeated uttering of the sacred name YHWH – revealed to Moses on Sinai – rolls repeatedly through this psalm like thunder rolling through a great thunderstorm. In the poetry the previous cultural understandings of a ‘god of thunder’ known from ancient Near Eastern, Greek and Scandinavian mythologies (among others) are reinterpreted through a theology of a god of glory who reigns over all other ‘gods’ and blesses his people with both power and peace.

In an age of increasingly common ‘extreme weather’ this Psalm may recover some of it ancient authority – although even as we think of God’s power behind the might of the weather we will perhaps also reflect upon the sins and negligence of humanity in our stewardship of oceans and wilderness, forests and animals.

Lest we relegate this Psalm to a primitive age and primitive people, remember that on 2nd July 1505 Martin Luther was caught in a terrible thunderstorm while returning to his home at Erfurt. That was 515 years and three weeks ago this coming Thursday! He was terrified. Lightning struck very near him. Luther vowed that if he survived the storm he would enter a monastery. He fulfilled his vow – in consequence of which I am writing these notes, and you are reading them. The Voice of God can still speak in a Great Storm!

The Job passages we are reading this week continue God’s questioning of Job after Job had (perhaps rashly) sought an interview with God to argue his innocence (be careful what you wish for!)   In Job 38.1-3 the Lord answers Job’s challenge: “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you and you shall declare to me.”  

Here God raises four questions for Job in four succeeding passages of initially 3 verses (38.39-41) and then three of passages each of 4 verses (39.1-4; 5-8; 9-12). The questions deal with whether Job understands hunting and how the wild animals and birds find their prey (38.39-41), his grasp of conception and the birthing of wild animals (39.1-4), a reflection on the phenomenon of ‘wildness’ itself through the case of the wild ass. (vs. 5-8) and finally, inviting comparison between the wild ox and the domesticated ox, with the overtones that Job cannot use a wild ox – but the Lord can, and is confident of its patterns of life (39.9-12).

There is a subtle link with the Psalm for the day in the Lord’s question to Job ‘do you observe the calving of the deer?’ (Job 39.1b), where the Psalm declares the voice of the Lord causes the deer to calve (Ps 29.9 footnote).

Romans chapter 3 is a central text in shaping how we read the book of Romans. A classic Reformation reading of this chapter has interpreted it as ’a justification account’, that is, Paul’s explanation of how God justifies sinners through the gospel. However, a number of scholars have raised questions as to whether this really was Paul’s purpose. Such a purpose does not sit well with the recurring engagement with the issue of ‘Jews first and also Gentiles’ announced in 1.16 and very much centre stage in chapters 9-11. Another suggestion has been that Paul is trying to explore how the Creator relates to the whole Creation (which connects well with some of the themes of chapter 8). A third idea by Melbourne scholar Dr Wendy Dabourne, sees the purpose of Romans to deal with an argument by some conservative Christians that salvation by faith is OK for the Gentiles, but God’s election of the Jews continues and we have to make distinctions between Jewish and Gentile Christians and the way salvation works for them. These Conservatives (her word) argue that, if God brings everyone in together and abandons the law and the covenant, then God is actually unjust, and Paul’s proclamation of the gospel is unrighteous.

Now in saying this I am simplifying a complex and very subtle argument. There is no doubt that Paul’s gospel was thoroughly centred on the idea of ‘justification by faith’. But is that his purpose in writing Romans and was that the real focus of Chapter 3, especially vss 21-26? The Reformation of the sixteenth century, and the Evangelical tradition in which many of us were raised, have interpreted Romans as a kind of systematic explication of ‘justification by faith’ as Paul understood it. But what if Paul is using the accepted understanding of ‘justification by faith’ that the Roman church would have known, to make a related, but different, point about the nature of God, God’s ways of working with humankind and the righteousness of God?  In our notes this week we can only explore some textual hints that the usual reading of this chapter as ‘an account of justification’ might actually be missing the point.

In 3.1-8 Paul continues his discussion of circumcision and its value. Having at the end of chapter 2 argued that physical circumcision is not what God is interested in, but ‘spiritual circumcision’ (proved by doing of the law) Paul now wants to defend the value of physical circumcision. The Jews (who are of course circumcised as the sign of their Jewishness) have great advantages. They were entrusted with the oracles of God (vs 2). Their unfaithfulness does not nullify the faithfulness of God (vs 3). Paul has argued in chapters 1 and 2 that ‘all’ are sinners. Now, has he argued for the universal sinfulness of humankind? Hardly, as he has already raised in chapter 2 the possibility (however remote) of the righteous Gentiles who are a law to themselves. He seems to be making the point that Gentiles and Jews are equally likely to be sinners and to fall under judgment. In vss 2-3 here he does not allow the failure and sinfulness of Jews to be a sign of God’s failure (let God be proved true vs 4).

Vss 5-8 specifically engage the question of whether God is to be considered unfair or unjust to inflict wrath on us (cf 1.18)?  In vs. 7-8 we have a version of Should we continue in sin so that grace may abound?  (Rom 6.1). Note how densely woven is the text, harking back to chapter 1 (on wrath) and forward to chapter 6 (on sin and grace). Paul’s argument is cutting two ways: first to ‘protect’ the value of Jewish identity even while he seeks to radically redefine it (2.17-29) and, secondly, to defend the justice, the righteousness of God (justice and righteousness have the same root in Greek).

Tuesday, June 9, 2020Psalm 29; Job 39:13-25; Romans 3:9-18

For the Psalm see Monday.

God’s interrogation of Job continues with the presentation of two contrasting animals, the ostrich and the horse. The ostrich is presented as a rather dopey animal which flaps wings without feathers and without flight (vs 13), leaves its eggs and offspring vulnerable (vs 14-16a), but has no fear because God has deprived it of wisdom and understanding – it lives according to God’s ordering and wisdom (vs 16b-17). And for all this, when it spreads it plumes aloft and runs, it laughs at the horse and rider (vs 18). So it has its strengths: God has created it in wisdom to have its own gifts.

God then describes the horse in beautiful terms – strong, brave, majestic, it laughs at fear (vs 22 note the parallel to the ostrich in vs 18) and is at ease with all weapons. When the battle is near it is almost human in its readiness for war.

Romans 3.9-19 is Paul’s integration of the argument so far. He has raised the possibility of just Gentiles who do what the law requires (2.14) and of Jews who sin (2.1). He has re-interpreted the value of law (2.17-24) and circumcision (2.25-29) in ways that dethrone Jewish chauvinism. Having then defended the value of Jewish identity in more cultural terms (they were entrusted with the oracles of God vs 2) he summarises his position: What then? Are we [i.e. Jews] any better off? No not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin… Vs 9. What is interesting here is that ‘all’ is not necessarily expressing a universal view of human sinfulness, but the radical equality of Jews and Gentiles under the power of sin.

Paul then grounds this view of shared sinfulness is a string of quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures that (according to scholar Brendan Byrne) ‘is quite unparalleled in the New Testament both in its length and in its single-minded focus upon the one theme of universal moral failure’. Six times we are told ‘there is no-one’ or ‘all have turned aside’ or ‘there is not even one’ who have done right (vss 10-12). What follows is a list of all the human body parts that lead to sin – throats, tongues, lips, mouths (vss 13-14), feet and eyes (vss 15-18). The main passages quoted are Ps 14:1-3 (=Ps 53:1-3) and Isaiah 59:7-8 with an introduction modelled on Eccl 7:20.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020Psalm 29; Job 39:26-40:5; Romans 3.19-31

 For the Psalm see Monday.

God drives home to Job another series of questions – about the flight and nesting patterns of hawks and eagles (vss 26-30). This ancient book, around 2,500 years old, has great insight and asks not only about the mysteries of flight, but the visual acuity of these birds (vs 29), something that science has really only come to study and understand in very recent centuries.

Job chapter 40 opens with a brief dialogue between God and Job. Job has spoken and dialogued with his friends from chapter 3 to chapter 37 inclusive. From Chapter 38 through to the end of 41, it is God’s turn to speak. The only answers of Job are given in 40.3-5 and 42.1-6. In 40.3-5 Job acknowledges I am of small account; what shall I answer you? (vs 4) and vows to keep silent (vs 5).

Romans 3.19-31: Here we come to the heart of the early part of Romans and one of the key passages in Paul’s argument.

In closing the previous section (vss 19-20) Paul reminds his hearers that the law only has effect on those who are under the law (i.e. Jews) – and the purpose here is that every mouth may be silenced , and the whole world  may be held accountable to God (vs 19). Presumably the mouths to be silenced are Jewish, and it is Jews too who are to be held accountable to God.  The closing verse makes clear that the law does not lead to justification, only to the knowledge of sin (vs 20).

Vss 21-26 are held by some to be the kernel of the gospel as preached by Paul. The number of Bible tracts that have been built around these verses is probably beyond reckoning! Rather than a detailed exegesis of the passage I want to point out two significant issues than run right to the heart of how we read these verses. The first is ‘the righteousness of God’ (named in vss 21, 22, and 25, 26 – see below) and the second is ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ (vss 22, 26).

The ‘righteousness of God’ is grammatically a genitive construction. It is common in English and can sometimes indicate possession, but also has other uses. May I illustrate by referring to my wife, Jane? I have a photograph of her in my wallet which I carry with me. It is Jane’s picture. She is the subject of the picture and this genitive construction is called a subjective genitive. I could ask you ‘Have you seen Jane’s picture (or ‘this picture of Jane’)?’  

On the wall of our guest bedroom is a charming painting of a French village. It was her late mother’s and belongs to Jane. Because she married me and promised to share all her worldly goods with me, it is also mine, even though it remains Jane’s picture. In time, when we are both gone, I assume one of our children will own it, though it will probably still be Jane’s picture. Although the words are identical to those describing the photo in my wallet, this is something quite different: an objective genitive – a genitive construction depicting an object related to the subject, Jane.

Now, is the ‘righteousness of God’ as used by Paul in the book of Romans a subjective, or an objective genitive? In other words, does it describe the righteousness that is intrinsic to Godself, (just as Jane’s photograph is intrinsically connected to her image)? Or does it describe a righteousness that God gives to others, something separable from God and able to be passed to others (like that painting of the French village)?

Since the Reformation, we have read ‘the righteousness of God’ as an objective genitive, that is, the ‘righteousness of God’ is what God shares with us through our faith in God and God’s justification of us.  

But what if it is a subjective genitive? What if this passage is actually talking about the righteousness of God in Godself, whether God as God is righteous and just and fair? Try reading the passage with both senses in your mind and you may begin to see completely different depths in Paul’s words. 

For instance, in vs 25b (He did this to show his righteousness…(emphasis added)) and vs 26a (it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous … (emphasis added)) both make much more sense when read as subjective genitives (actually it would be hard to read them the other way). What then of vss 21 and 22? Should we not read them as subjective genitives as well?

Vs 21 makes more sense (to me) as a subjective genitive, but vs 22 is a different matter.  However, this brings us to through faith in Jesus Christ (vs 22) which we should consider further.

Note in the biblegateway.com version of this text there is a footnote which gives an alternate translation of the Greek: or through the faith of Jesus Christ (vs 22a – emphasis added). Variant readings can either be due to differences in the early manuscripts that have come down to us,  or the intrinsic difficulties of deciphering ancient Greek texts. Here it is not manuscript variations but the ambiguities of the Greek syntax – and again it is a question of how a genitive is to be interpreted! Does Paul mean ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ (that is, our faith and trust vested in Jesus – an objective genitive) or does he mean ‘the personal faith or faithfulness of Jesus’ (a subjective genitive)? 

The same issue emerges in vs 26. Here God justifies either the one who has faith in Jesus OR the one who has the faith of Jesus. Here the issues are a little more complicated in that not only are there syntax and grammar questions about how to read the genitive case, there is also a significant manuscript tradition that includes the word ‘the’ before the word for ‘faith’ (which would definitely support the interpretation  the one who has the faith of Jesus. The textual scholars have given the variant readings here (‘faith in Jesus’ vs ‘the faith of Jesus’) a ‘D’ rating – which means they can’t decide on the textual evidence which is the ‘true’ version, the original author’s words. What this means is: take your pick!

Brendan Byrne, a leading Pauline scholar, says that the subjective reading of ‘the righteousness of God’ was ‘formerly a somewhat maverick view … [but] has gained ground in recent years’ (he writing in 1996).  Byrne’s conclusion is that ‘[d]eciding between the two rests upon the context and an overall view of Paul’s theology’.  Given the long standing reading of ‘the righteousness of God’ as an objective genitive so that the ‘righteousness of God’ is all about our righteousness and our justification, then an objective reading of ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ would be suggested by the context as we have traditionally read it, and by our assumptions about Paul’s intention.  In that reading, ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ then marks out another religious tribe, this group having, by virtue of their faith, appropriated or been granted ‘the righteousness of God’ (understood as an objective genitive).

But if we read both the ‘the righteousness of God’ and ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’ as subjective genitives, then the passage is saying something else entirely: it is telling of a revelation of the righteousness of God in Godself, that was revealed to the world through the faithfulness of Jesus (vs 22). Just as Jews and Gentiles (all – vs 23) have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (vs 23) they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (vs 24) (because of his faithfulness vs 22) whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement (or – again! – as a ‘place’ of atonement – see the footnote).

Far from being a straightforward presentation of the theology of ‘justification by faith’, Romans 3.21-26 presents many challenges of interpretation. In deciding how to read this passage we will need to come back to it over and over and read it in the context of all that Paul is saying in the rest of the book.

Vs 27-31 then apply this densely packed argument to the status of Jews and Gentiles. Boasting is excluded (presumably the boasting of Jews over Gentiles). It is not excluded by the law of worksbut by the law of faith (vs 27). The clear principle is declared For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law (vs 28). God is the God of both Jews and Gentiles (vs 28) and justifies both on the same grounds – the ground of faith! (vs 29). Paul then asks a key question Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? (vs 31) and concludes that faith upholds the law!

Thursday, June 11, 2020Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Genesis 21:1-7; Romans 4:1-12

(Note: We dealt with this Psalm in the second week of Easter and these notes are adapted from the remarks previously published: if it sounds familiar, that’s the reason!)

Psalm 116.1-2,12-19:  If you have watched the first edition of our Bible Chef podcast on the BHBC website (which dealt with the importance of ‘peeling’) you will immediately notice that vss 3-11 of this Psalm have been peeled off and left in the trash. Why? Possibly because these verses deal with the nature of the distress that the petitioner has experienced. What remains is much more purely a brief expression of the problem followed by a ‘song of thanksgiving of an individual’ that is offered as testimony within the shared worship of the community. Scholars see this Psalm as a series of fragments of praise and thanksgiving that have been gathered together. Some scholars have tried (probably unsuccessfully) to see Psalms 116 and 117 together as part of a larger whole (Psalm 117 is a very short fragment (2 verses) that is clearly a public responsive piece from a worship liturgy.)

Vss 1-2 express the devotion of the singer to the Lord arising from the Lord having heard the singer’s distress. 

The motif of ‘lifting up the cup of salvation’ (vs 13) is difficult to place with accuracy within the cult of the temple. There were libation offerings to be offered (see, for example, Ex 29.40ff and Num 28.7). There were also descriptions of the opposite to ‘the cup of salvation’, namely ‘the cup of wrath’, but this was usually used as a metaphor rather than any form of ritual or cultic participation (see Is 51.17, Lam 4.21, 32, 33). In the NT we have mention of the ‘cup of blessing’ (1 Cor 10.16) with reference to the Lord’s Supper. We cannot be certain as to what ‘the cup of salvation’ in Ps 116 referred.

Vss 14 express the singer’s determination to ‘perform their vows’: the Lord has delivered them they will offer praise and fulfil the vows that they have made. 

Vss 15-16 contain expressions of trust in the Lord – the Lord is not unconcerned or ignorant of the death of the Lord’s people, and I am your servant, the child of one of your servants.

Vss 17-19 elaborate the performance of vows expressed in vs 14: offering a thanksgiving sacrifice (vs 17a), calling on the name of the Lord (vs 17b), paying vows publicly (vs 18) in the temple in Jerusalem (vs 19a,b) ending with an acclamation of praise (vs 19c).

Genesis 21.1-7 is a story of great importance to the Bible story as a whole. Isaac, as the child of promise, stands as the ancestor of Israel. Ishmael, another son of Abraham but a son by a slave woman, is claimed by the Muslim nations as their ancestor. So far, so good, but the question as to who can claim Abraham as their ancestor – or how he and Sarah are to be shared – is a tale of politics and violence than has extended back for many centuries. 

A sign of how deeply this story is entwined in the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that my preaching plan just happened to allocate Romans 4.1-12 to this day – Paul reflecting on Abraham and his ‘believing God’ – and what did the lectionary ‘just happen’ to direct us to this day? The fulfilment of God’s promise (or one of them!) that Abraham ‘believed’!

When I visited Hebron in the West Bank, I knew that it had been a place of contention and violence between Jews and Palestinians for many years. It wasn’t until I went there that I understood why: it is the location of the Cave of the Patriarchs where Abraham and Sarah lie buried. You can read something of the chequered history of their grave here.

When we read passages such as Genesis 21 and Romans 4, they are not just old tales and dead letters: they are absolutely alive, and sometimes ticking!  The Prime Minister of Israel has given notice that in a few weeks Israel will annex further territory from the West Bank (in defiance of international law). Will it include Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Islamic shrine of al-Haram al-Ibrahimi (the Ibrahimi Mosque)?  Over the cave stood a large rectangular enclosure built by the Jews in the time of Herod. Byzantine Christians later took it over and built a Christian basilica. After the Muslim conquest it was converted into a mosque. Crusaders took it over in the 12th century and it was Christian site, but then in 1188 Saladin re-conquered it and converted it back into a synagogue and a mosque (which is the format of the site today). Are we living in an age where this ancient contest over ancestors and their resting places will again break forth?

Genesis 21.1-7 is straightforward. The promise of God is mentioned in vss 1 (to Sarah) and 2 (to Abraham). The name Isaac (vs 3) and Sarah’s delighted statement in vs 7 are anchored in the events around the promise being given (see Genesis 18.9-15).

The sign of circumcision is mentioned in vs 4 and also forms the basis of the discussion in Romans 4.9-12. However, the origin of circumcision as a practice in the Old Testament is difficult to chart clearly. While here in Genesis 21 we are told that Abraham circumcised his son when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him (vs 4) – a reassuring reflection of later Jewish practise – we have in the traditions of Exodus a much more mysterious tale of the appearance of circumcision. Moses’ wife Zipporah (when the Lord tried to kill Moses) cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”. So he [God] let him [Moses] alone (Ex 4.24-26).  [See also the reflections on Romans 4 below.]

We worked very hard on Romans 3 yesterday, but we will not be nearly so taxing about Romans 4. If we read Romans 3 not as a traditional presentation of a generalised Evangelical theology of justification, but as a revelation of a new way of God’s justice being revealed in the ways of grace – equally available and relevant for Jews (the supposedly holy people) and Gentiles (the supposed sinners) – then Paul has to deal with the (apparent) tension between faith and law, or faith and works, and show that they are not opposed.

He does this by reflecting on Abraham. The foundation of his argument is vs 3: Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. This principle is unpacked through vss 4-8.

Vs 9 heads in a related but slightly different direction in speaking of circumcision. Paul argues that Abraham’s faith was prior to circumcision, which is but a sign of what has already been covenanted (see Genesis 17). Vs 11 develops the view that God’s purpose was to make Abraham the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them (vs 11) and  likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised (vs 12).

Now this text raises a whole new question that will come back to us especially in chapters 9-11. We have seen that the heart of Romans from 1.16 onward has been about Jews and Greeks, people of Israel and Gentile foreigners, those under the law and those apart from the law, the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Paul is arguing strongly that all are equal and God shows no partiality. But here, in arguing for Abraham as the ancestor of both the circumcised and the uncircumcised, and that the basis of their righteousness before God is, in all cases, ‘believing God’, Paul poses a question for us of which he must have been completely unaware: What about Muslims? 

They too are circumcised and see their descent through Ishmael (see Gen 17.23). Do they too ‘believe God’ and stand among the children of Abraham? As Paul argues relentlessly that God shows no partiality, that God deals with all with fairness and equity, how do we see his argument and his theology informing our attitude to Muslims (as well as Jews)?  If (as we saw in one reading of Romans 3) we are not justified by faith in Jesus Christ, but rather the faith of Jesus Christ, what does that imply for our relationships with Muslims, themselves numbered among the peoples of the circumcised?

Friday, June 12, 2020:  Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Genesis 24:1-9; Romans 4:13-25

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 24: Yesterday Isaac’s birth – today his marriage! This is not a story that drags! Note that we have completely passed over the rejection (and sacrifice?) of Ishmael and Hagar his mother (Gen 21.8-21), the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) and the death of Sarah (Genesis 23), Isaac’s mother, and her burial in the Cave of Machpelah (discussed above). 

An element of the Bible that we do not always recognise is that love and marriage were not always conducted as they are in our Western tradition of romantic love. At various points in Israel’s history endogamy (marrying within the tribe) was very important. Here Abraham charges his servant to get a wife for Isaac from among my country and my … kindred (vs 4). Although Abraham’s family had originated in Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 11.28), the land to which the servant was sent was a region in northern Mesopotamia named Aram-naharaim (vs 10) where Terah (Abraham’s father) had spent time after leaving Ur (Genesis 11.31-32)

The swearing of the oath with your hand under my thigh (vs 4, 9) was a solemn form of oathtaking or sealing a contract  in which two men would each place their hand around the other’s genitals as a sign of mutual vulnerability and deep trust. A hand-shake as a way of agreeing a deal is no longer acceptable in this Covid-19 age, but I doubt there would be much enthusiasm for a return to the ancient practice.

Romans 4.13-25 carries on Pauls reflections on Abraham. Vs 13 is a fine summary statement. Vs 14 discounts the claim of the adherents of the law to be considered the heirs of Abraham and vs 15 presents Paul’s principle that law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no violation (cf 1.18ff where ‘the wrath of God’ has been revealed to all apart from the law and through ‘the book of nature’).

Vs 16-22 further unpack the story of Abraham and his faith, this time through an analysis of the circumstances of the birth of Isaac (see yesterday’s reading from Genesis). Vs 22 repeats vs 3, thus placing the basic principle (Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness) at the beginning and end of the Abraham account.

In this extended account of Abraham’s ‘faith’ across all of chapter 4 there are two clauses that describe God. Remember the reading of Chapter 3 that suggested perhaps the whole focus of Paul was not our justification but the justification (or vindication) of ‘the righteousness of God’ in Godself. Note that these two clauses are profound statements of the power and majesty of God, continuing Paul’s defence of God as the one who shows justice and greatness. The two clauses are vs 5, about him who justifies the ungodly and vs 17, about the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. This latter text has been a foundation for the doctrine of the creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). Even while describing Abraham and interpreting his history, Paul is continuing to defend and extol God in the highest possible terms!

Vss 23-25 take us out of the historical and into the immediately existential: these words were written for us!  Vss 24-25 are a kind of creedal statement that now, rather than in 3.21-26 become a hinge point to discussing what this thing called ‘faith’ looks like. Examine closely the wording that is used here: [Righteousness] will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification (vss 24-25).   The faith described here is not ‘belief in Jesus Christ’ but believing in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. Our justification is not a consequence of our faith in Jesus (cf. the traditional reading of 3.26) but a result of the resurrection of Jesus!

Saturday, June 13, 2020Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Genesis 24:10-52; Romans 1-4 Review

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 24.10-52 is a long passage, and one of the most beautiful and romantic passages of the OT, especially the ending (not included here) of vss 53-67 in which Rebekah comes to Isaac. Detailed commentary is not necessary as it is essentially a narrative.  The action takes place in Aram-naharaim in northern Mesopotamia, the land of the Arameans (northern Syria). A prayer for guidance is offered by the servant and before he had finished speaking Rebekah ‘enters stage left’ (vs 15). Rebekah (we are told) is the granddaughter of Milcah, wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother (vs 15). Note that Milcah was married to her uncle (Nahor), because she was the daughter of Abraham’s other brother, Haran (Genesis 11.29). So Rebekah was a descendant of both of Abraham’s brothers, one her grandfather and the other, her great-grandfather. (If the generations seem improbable, remember that Isaac was born when Abraham was very, very old.) In Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, the bloodlines of the three sons of Terah (Nahor, Haran and Abram) come together.     

Romans 1-4 Review 

If you have followed the notes for this week and last week, you have worked very, very hard, especially in dealing with Romans. I am sorry to have dealt with so much in so little time. 

The reason has been that the lectionary readings on Romans for June – September completely leave out chapters 1-4 from this cycle of readings. If we were to engage with these chapters we had to cover a lot of complex ground very quickly. 

Why did the Lectionary leave it out? Is it that they think the teaching of Romans 1-4 is so settled and ‘safe’ that we all know it? Is it that the issues are so complicated and intertwined that they wanted to avoid it?

I felt it was vital to try and open up some of the complexities of the book of Romans and to help us to read it with new eyes.  What does it tell us about who is ‘righteous’ and who are ‘sinners’?  What does it tell us about ‘faith’? Is faith ‘in Jesus’ the only path to salvation and the only way to God? Does ‘faith in Jesus’ create a new religious ‘tribe’ who are now the chosen race? Or does the faith of Abraham, and the faith of Jesus, point us towards a way of believing and trusting God that transcends our religious ‘tribes’ and brings us together on a new path?

Above all, who is God? Is God truly good and fair? Does God play favourites, blessing the pious and the morally superior with wealth and good experiences, and leaving the rest (the sinners, the ‘losers’, the also-rans) in their failure and struggles? Is Paul trying (to quote John Milton in Paradise Lost) to assert Eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to men? If so, do we need to engage a similar task in the 21st century, where talk of God seems banal and clichéd, where the paths of much Christian teaching are dusty and well-trodden, and the church seems to echo the now shabby respectability of a former age? 

I’m excited by Romans, and I find it a revolutionary and timely text for this world and this generation. Some of you might be disconcerted – or scandalised, or even angered – by some of these studies. If so – excellent!  Please push back, and offer YOUR views, YOUR readings of the text, YOUR questions, and above all YOUR insights as to what God is calling us to live and teach in this place, at this time.

Grace and peace,

Jim Barr

7th June 2020

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